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Home cooking the books

There are experiments -- Galileo’s falling bodies, Einstein’s elevator, NBC’s “The Age of Love” -- that radically change the way human beings conceptualize the world around them. But little celebrated are the vast majority of experiments that prove the obvious. This is one of those experiments.

With grocery prices spiking -- 2007 had the worst food inflation in 17 years -- it became more important than ever to find out which was more expensive: eating at home or going to a restaurant.

I’ve eaten too many dishes like chorizo-crusted chatham cod with white coco bean puree and harissa oil and wondered: How could I possibly buy all these ingredients for $30? I’ve marveled at the existence of $1 double cheeseburgers. Is it possible, I’ve fantasized, that bulk ordering and efficient use of raw goods actually makes eating out more economical? Just as we no longer each do our own farming, have we advanced to a point of specialization where it is inefficient to cook? Can the world be that wonderful?

The answer, after a week’s worth of careful tallying and computation, is: Not even close.

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I set strict rules for the experiment. I counted only dinners -- because breakfast and lunch are obviously cheap to make. No alcohol; the restaurant markup would skew everything. No fast food: No way my home cooking could be cheaper than a $1 double cheeseburger, unless I looked the other way when I bought the meat, grilled 500 of them and then tricked all 499 of my friends into slipping me $1.25 for a soda. I also wasn’t dining out at any steakhouses because, while maybe I can’t get hold of all their quality cuts, I know I can get a New York strip and grill it for a third of the price. No appetizers, no desserts, no coffee. And although I wouldn’t deduct for leftovers or unused portions of ingredients at home, I also wouldn’t count condiments, oils, seasonings, the cost of running the dishwasher or the labor of cooking and cleaning.

Yes, while I was formulating these rules I really did think this was all going to wind up in some textbook as Stein’s Law. Finally replacing my dad’s Stein’s Law, which stated that you can’t talk during “The Rockford Files.”

It also should be noted that my results were skewed by the fact that because all meals were for two, my wife was involved in some ordering and food shopping, and she was very, very eager to make sure that eating out seemed like a bargain. Imagine how Sir Alexander Fleming would have fared if his lab assistant could eat better for the rest of her life if she killed all his penicillin fungus. Cassandra, when I wasn’t looking, somehow bought ground beef for our tacos that cost $15.49. Our salad had $6 worth of lettuce. If Damien Hirst made diamond-encrusted pasta, she’d have put that on our home menu.

Still, restaurants got spanked.

Pasta was almost twice as much, despite the fact we spent $8 on Parmesan that we only used a sliver of. A restaurant’s pizza with a salad cost nearly twice as much as the seared, sesame-crusted wild albacore accompanied by haricot verts with shiitake mushrooms and toasted almonds and a side of organic yams that I prepared at home. Burgers and a side dish at a famous stand in San Francisco cost $4 more than mine using Whole Foods organic ground beef.

The only meal whose price I couldn’t beat were the vastly superior carne asada tacos we bought out of a Taco Zone truck on Alvarado Boulevard -- and that would have been true even if I hadn’t bought $15 worth of magic cow. The lesson is that when immigrants who don’t have to pay rent on their kitchen make an excellent meal, don’t bother turning on your stove.

The total for a week’s worth of restaurant dinners for two was $257.08; home cooking: $148.14. Removing the outliers, a mid-range L.A. dinner was $40 for two, while shopping for insanely high-end ingredients at a snotty supermarket ran $18.

Sure, at home Cassandra and I each ate the same dish instead of ordering our own meals, and my dinners were often simpler. But sometimes we got to watch TV and not wear pants. If someone opens a restaurant like that, I’ll rerun the experiment and drop fistfuls of saffron in everything.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Stein’s law of dining

Restaurant

Pasta at Girasole: $43.13

Pizza at Prizzi’s: $44.21

Tacos at Taco Zone truck: $10.00

Salads at Alcove: $24.74

Burgers at Taylors Refresher: $22.74

Hungry Cat (fish): $44.97

Orris (fish): $67.29

Total: $257.08

Home

Spaghetti carbonara: $23.81

Albacore: $16.10

Tacos: $35.23

Salad: $22.39

Burgers: $18.37

Snapper: $16.10

Orange Roughy: $16.14

Total: $148.14


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